My mother always says that if you have a problem, you should voice your opinion and let yourself be heard, because you are rarely the only one facing that situation. However, I have found this to be a little tricky in grad school.
Your peers are usually your best support group, and this couldn’t be truer than in grad school. Everyone works late hours, goes through frustrating periods, has career crises. They can all relate to what you’re going through, because they’re living it themselves, so you can instantly connect with them.
I recently hit that point in my project where I’m not really sure which direction to move forward in. I have tried lots of different angles that haven’t really panned out. A PhD, by definition, is a novel piece of work, which means you are often the expert you seek to find. No one else can necessarily answer your questions. No shortcuts exist. It’s a process of trial and error, which can sometimes be frustrating and lonely, even though you are not alone. Talking to peers and friends inevitably gets you some of the same suggestions – have you tried A, how about B. Of late, after having tried all options, the answers have become “oh well, that’s too bad,” “good luck,” or “you’ll figure it out.” That’s the kind of stuff my mom and dad tell me. It’s more encouragement than sound advice.
So what do you do when your friends’ and family’s advice seems fruitless?
Back in December 2010, I hit a similar rough patch and decided to head to a conference. I was so frustrated, and I figured that if I went to a conference and bounced ideas off people, it would get me somewhere. My supervisor didn’t think it was a good idea, but he didn’t stop me from going. I decided to pay for it out of my own pocket. It wasn’t far (Philadelphia), and since I knew people who were going, I could crash on their hotel room floor.
Disaster ensued. Well, not quite, but it was definitely overwhelming. I went to ASCB, which is one of the largest conferences in my field. Five days, with over 1,000 posters a day. I met lots of people, but not necessarily the experts I was hoping to find. I came back knowing that I’m not alone and that many others are in the same boat, but without any concrete new experiments to try. My supervisor, politely, didn’t say I told you so, and actually did pay for my registration fees when he found out I had gone to the conference on my vacation.
So this time, being faced with a similar situation, I decided to attend a much smaller conference. My supervisor was on board and even registered to come as well. Two days, 36 posters, and basically every expert in my field. With everyone I met, I could skip the introduction and background, and dive directly into the nitty-gritty details, which made for excellent exchanges and feedback.
I have now returned, feeling rejuvenated and with concrete theories to test out and new experiments to try. They may not work, but at least I know I’ll be testing the right theories. I learned that it’s good to discuss your problems, but it’s even better when you do it with the right people.